By Heidi Simmons
The Art Of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Is this baseball season? I really don’t know anything about the sport. Maybe that’s not completely true, because I did love to play the game as a kid. But of course playing it and watching it are two different things. And reading about baseball hardly sounds like an exciting summer experience, at least for me. Yet in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, 544 pages) the world of college baseball is more entertaining than you think.
The story begins with Henry Skrimshander, an awkward, midwestern kid with a gift for playing the position of shortstop. Observed and then recruited by Mike Swartz, a team captain for a private liberal arts college in Wisconsin, Skrimshander leaves the hopelessness of his community (against his parent’s wishes), to pursue the potential dream of a career in baseball.
When Skrimshander arrives at college, he becomes roommates with Owen Dunne, an elegant and refined gay student who is –- surprisingly — also on the baseball team. The members of the team bond and together they play so well they have hopes of possibly winning a national championship.
Skrimshander is so good, he is becoming the player all the scouts want to see and potentially is the number one draft pick for the major leagues. Six-figure offers balance in the wings. Just as he is about to break the world record for no errors, he throws a wild ball into his own team’s dugout, smashing the beautiful face of his roommate Dunne. The game is called, and instead of becoming the new record holder, Skrimshander is celebrated for tying it.
Unfortunately, his one bad throw sadly destroys the mojo of the entire team and sends Skrimshaner, Swartz and others into a downward spiral.
Meanwhile the college president Guert Affenlight has found himself in love with the captivating and incredibly desirable Dunne. Giddy and awkward as a schoolboy, it is Affenlight’s first love affair with a man. Forty years Dunne’s senior, Affenlight cannot resist his charms even if it might cost him his job.
Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, joins the mix after she leaves her husband in San Francisco. She hopes her dad can get her enrolled in the college although she lacks credits and SAT scores. At 18, Pella passed up Yale to marry and after four years, it was not what she had hoped.
Depressed and insecure, Pella soon finds herself in a love triangle with Swartz and Skrimshander, which creates even more tension as the team tries to recover from Skrimshander’s bad luck. Pella and her father try to reconcile their relationship, but sadly without much success. The lives of all the main characters begin to unravel as they struggle to get what they want until they discover what they need.
Oh yeah, and there is baseball. I can’t say that I am enlightened or that I at all care about the game, but it did not hurt the story and the sport made for an interesting backdrop.
The title The Art of Fielding is borrowed from a real-life, well-known baseball book of aphorisms by St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. It is Rodriguez’s record Skrimshander is trying to beat in the novel. Rodriguez attends the game and witnesses Skrimshander’s bad throw.
I did find the final game to be one of the most exciting I’ve experienced — although that’s not saying much since I rarely attend or watch baseball. I did learn enough tidbits about the sport and its challenges to appreciate the final showdown. So indeed I was involved enough to want the characters to redeem themselves and win the championship.
Author Harbach delivers well-written, colorful prose that would keep even golf fans engaged in the life of this small campus on the edge of Lake Michigan. Short chapters move quickly between the cast of characters keeping the story’s momentum going forward although it does lag before the climax. But Harback sentences are descriptive and fluid without going overboard. His observations are astute and compelling.
Thematically, I wanted more of “The Art of Fielding’s” philosophy applied not only to the game of baseball — which only showed up twice in the five hundred plus pages — but to the lives of these troubled characters as they figured out what to do next.
Somehow, I needed them all to learn a valuable lesson about life through their individual relationship with the game of baseball. In fact, I can’t say any of the characters learned anything other than a lot of their problems are caused by their own poor decisions. Perhaps that’s one thing college is about.
The characters of this novel lack dimension, and for me, there are too many missing scenes or moments that should have revealed more inner conflict. There were sudden jumps in actions I just didn’t buy.
The Art of Fielding was not a homerun. However, I consider Harbach’s writing some of the best I’ve read this year. In this case, style trumps story. This is his first novel and I expect his sophomore debut will be even better. With more attention to story, he will be a terrific literary heavy hitter.
Chad Harbach will be speaking at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival in January.